Recently I completed a short book with this title taken from the poem HIGH FLIGHT. The book’s subject was the military career of my uncle, First Lieutenant Royden E. Hardaway who died on this date in 1943-killed in action. He was part of the 339th US army fighter squadron, a unit that was based on the island of Guadalcanal in 1943, a famous island prize, recently taken from the stubborn, hard-fighting Japanese.
At the time Army land-based pilots were deployed in six-week rotations-six-weeks in a combat zone and then six-weeks out, in the rear in some sort of less dangerous support duty. In his first combat rotation, earlier in 1943, Lt. Hardaway had flown a P-39, a plane found to be nearly useless in air combat against the more nimble and higher climbing Japanese Zero. The principal use of the P-39, like the German Stuka in Europe, was as a dive bomber attacking Japanese ground forces. At the time of his first combat rotation, the island of Guadalcanal was reasonably secure but there were a few scattered, starving, demoralized, enemy units who could have caused trouble for the now large US base. Army pilots such as Lt. Hardaway were “mopping up”, sent out to find and destroy them. Though this duty was not quite as exciting or glamorous as air combat, I suspect it had become routine at this point to put newly arrived pilots in the P-39s.
The experienced pilots got the good plane-the P-38, a plane first seen on the island in late November of 1942. LT. Hardaway had just missed a big event when he arrived on “the canal” on April 19 for his first rotation. The day before, sixteen P-38s had been sent out to find a plane carrying Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor and possibly the most famous and beloved military figure in the empire of Japan. The mission was a stunning success and all sixteen pilots returned to base. Though it was supposed to be top secret, news of this kind is hard to suppress. Lt. Hardaway would likely have heard about it soon after he stepped onto the ground. He probably wondered if he would be soon be flying one of the new P-38s, a plane far superior to the P-39, a plane that had proven to be more than a match for the Japanese Zero.
In my book I had to use the words “likely” and “probably” a great deal simply because my uncle said so little about his duties and about the war in general in his letters. Mostly he fussed at the folks back home for their failure to write, discussed the news from home, card games that he had won, jokes that he had heard, and other “Mom and Pop” issues. No, he couldn’t say much. Men in the war zones were under strict orders to keep quiet about all things military. The folks back home would have to learn about how the war was going from newsreels, newspapers, and the “grapevine.” I suspect that about all that the family in Lebanon and Nashville knew was that RE, their loved one, was posted somewhere in the Pacific (since his letters came through the official army post office in San Francisco). Each letter had a censor’s stamp. And of course, he couldn’t have said a word about the exciting news being whispered around Guadalcanal on April 19.
Lt. Hardaway met his end a few months later as a part of the land-based army air forces supporting allied efforts to clear the remaining Solomon Islands of Japanese forces. This strategy was called “island hopping”, seizing islands, one after another, principally in order to build airfields. Many in our time have the fuzzy idea that the fighter pilots of the Pacific War were mostly Navy pilots operating from aircraft carriers. No, most Pacific war pilots were land-based army pilots like Hardaway. Though the aircraft carriers had a vital role, a more permanent island airfield (most of the time) was a far, far cheaper and more practical alternative, especially when it came to bombers, which couldn’t operate on carriers at all. Some of Lt.Hardaway’s combat duties were, I suspect, to escort bombers over enemy targets and chase away or destroy enemy planes sent up to shoot the bombers down.
When the terrible news arrived in Tennessee, the family was told that RE died from a broken neck when his P-38 crash -landed on an island airfield in the Pacific. For many years that was all that we knew. In recent years I’ve been able to fill in some blanks, that the airfield was likely the “Munda” airfield on the island of New Georgia, a prize recently taken from the Japanese by hard-fighting US marine and army units. The 339th was not as yet based at that place, being still within range of the airfields of Guadalcanal, especially when auxiliary drop tanks were used by the P-38s. But the airfield at Munda was used only for emergency landings for damaged US planes. Recently I visited a World War Two museum in New Orleans. In one of the many exhibits I saw photos of crashed P-38s on the rugged Munda airfield. The caption below these photos explained how dangerous the place was and of how risky it was for a pilot to attempt a landing there. I couldn’t help but wonder if my uncles had flown one of the crashed planes shown in the fuzzy Black and white photos in that display.
Sometime in early April of 1943, after the completion of his stateside training just before “shipping out”, the newly commissioned Lt. Hardaway stopped off to visit the family in Lebanon. Other “Hardaway” relatives from Nashville made the trip to Lebanon to see him. Lots of photos were taken. My personal favorite is the one shown above with my fifteen-year-old father Andrew proudly posing with his big brother. It was to be their last time together.
Unlike most downed pilots, his remains were sent home, a fact that seems to support the truthfulness of the story of his death told to the family. Today we can visit his grave in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon, Tennessee. We are very proud of him. He is not forgotten. On this day 68 years ago he gave his life for his country and for freedom. Because of his sacrifice and that of so many others in the war years, the world was rescued from a terrible tyranny. I look forward to meeting him and offering my thanks.